ATHENS, Ga. — Forget Atlanta or going back to campus. The annual Georgia-Florida football game is staying in Jacksonville.
The Georgia athletic board endorsed a new six-year contract Wednesday that would keep the game formerly known as “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” in the northeast Florida city through 2016. Athletic director Damon Evans can now finalize negotiations with the city of Jacksonville and Florida officials.
“What really stood out to me was the rich tradition and history of this game,” Evans said. “This game has been played in Jacksonville for 75-plus years. I truly believe it is one of the top 10 rivalries in the country. Moreover, I think it is part of the fabric of college football.”
The current deal ends after the 2010 game, and there was speculation Georgia might want to play the Gators at Sanford Stadium in alternating years instead of 84,000-seat Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on an annual basis. Also, officials in Atlanta had proposed playing the game at least once every four years at the Georgia Dome.
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But Jacksonville officials made a major concession when they agreed to subsidize Georgia’s travel costs, chartering three planes to fly the team directly from Athens to Jacksonville. That arrangement will actually begin next season, one year before the new contract takes effect.
“The city of Jacksonville is stepping up,” said associate athletic director Frank Crumley. “Our travel time will actually be shorter than Florida’s travel time is.”
Other factors cited by Evans: The economic impact the game has on southeastern Georgia, where many Bulldog fans stay for the weekend, and the chance to boost recruiting efforts in the state of Florida.
The game has been held in Jacksonville every year since 1933, except for a two-year hiatus in 1994-95 when it was played on each school’s campus while Municipal Stadium was undergoing renovations to prepare for the arrival of the NFL Jaguars.
Georgia once dominated the series and still leads 47-38-2, but Florida has taken command over the past two decades. The Gators have lost only three times since 1990 and blew out the Bulldogs 49-10 last season, leading some Georgia fans to complain that Florida has an unfair advantage because Jacksonville is much closer to its Gainesville campus.
Florida wanted to contest to remain in Jacksonville all along.
“The game has always been one of the great traditions in Florida history, and in my opinion, Georgia history, and in college football history,” Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley said. “We’ve always been a proponent of the game being played in Jacksonville, and we’re thrilled it’s going to continue to be played there.”
The game picked up its “Cocktail Party” moniker during the 1950s, which came to symbolize the raucous fans from Georgia and Florida who descended on Jacksonville each year.
In 2006, however, both schools requested the nickname no longer be used after the deaths of two Florida students. Officials felt it worked against their efforts to promote more responsible use of alcohol.
Still, the game is viewed as one of the biggest parties in all of college football.
“It is neat to travel and go down and see a neutral site,” said Brittany Lee, a student representative on the Georgia athletic board. “So many of my friends call from Ole Miss or Tennessee and say, ‘We want to go to Georgia-Florida. That just seems like so much fun.’ ”
In addition to settling the future of the Georgia-Florida game, the board also approved $1.2 million from its reserve fund for the planning of an expanded concourse at Stegeman Coliseum, the school’s basketball arena. The total cost of the project was not discussed.
Also, the panel approved $700,000 to design a new pedestrian area behind the north stands of Sanford Stadium. The total cost of that project is expected to be $8.8 million.